G R O U N D   Z E R O

In the badlands of Pakistan, trouble returns
Raj Chengappa

The distressing attack on Malala is a wake-up call that neither the Pakistan Army nor the world can ignore. Militancy in the region is a long way from being vanquished.

Raj ChengappaWith the towering Hindu Kush Mountains as the backdrop and the idyllic Swat river meandering through verdant Himalayan valleys, the Swat region in Pakistan was once regarded as the ‘Switzerland of the East’. With an 18-hole golf course and sprawling ski resorts, it was among the world’s top holiday destinations prior to 1980. Since then though, the region has become a hotbed of Pakistan militancy, spawning some of the most radical and brutal Islamic groups that saw much blood flow down the Swat river.

Last week, more blood was shed when 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai, the region’s bravest child rights activist, was shot at point-blank range while she was on her way home in a crowded school bus. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), said to be influenced by Al Qaida, claimed responsibility for the shooting. With bullets piercing her head and neck, Malala hovers between life and death despite the best medical treatment being extended to her.

A Pakistani demonstrator lights a candle during a protest in Karachi against the assassination attempt on child activist Malala Yousafzai.
A Pakistani demonstrator lights a candle during a protest in Karachi against the assassination attempt on child activist Malala Yousafzai. — AFP

The shooting of Malala saw outrage across the political spectrum in Pakistan. Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf stated, “Malala is a daughter of our nation and if she is not safe then no child is safe in the country.” In a rare gesture, Pakistan Army Chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani visited Malala in the hospital and strongly condemned the attack. The Pakistan Government announced a Rs 10-million award for information to nab her assailants.

For Pakistan and the rest of the world, including India, Malala’s shooting is a chilling reminder that the war against terror is far from over. Just last year, the Pakistan Government in a rare demonstration of confidence allowed a handful of Indian journalists, including me, to visit Swat to see how it had been able to restore normalcy to a sensitive region that had been taken over by hardcore militants who had imposed a medieval Taliban-style of justice on its people.

Before the Pakistan Army launched an operation to flush out the militants, the TTP led by the charismatic Mullah Fazlullah made Swat its “model Taliban state”. Imposing a draconian version of the Sharia, the TTP forbade girls from attending school, destroying over 400 schools. Malala had gained fame at that time when she started a blog that criticised the ban and spoke out against atrocities being committed by the militants.

Meanwhile, women were prevented from taking up jobs and were forced to wear burqas. Music, videos and cable networks were banned. Fazlullah used a radio station to broadcast his daily sermons preaching religious purity, earning him the sobriquet Mullah Radio. Each family had to hand over one male member to wage jihad and a female to wed a Taliban fighter.

As we drove through the streets of Mingora in an army jeep, the colonel who was escorting us pointed to the town centre that had been converted to a public gallows where bodies of executed ‘infidels’ — governmental officials, tribal leaders and people who opposed them — were hung for days to strike fear into the heart of the region. In 2009, the Pakistan Army launched a systematic assault in the Swat region and within two years successfully rid it of most of its militants. Mullah Radio though escaped with a band of his loyal followers to Afghanistan and remains still at large.

The operation to flush out militants in Swat became a showcase for the Pakistan Army to tell the world that far from abetting terror, they were waging a grim war against Islamic militancy. The army took us to schools like the one Malala went to, which had reopened after two years of bloody fighting. We were also taken to a newly opened home science college for girls where students told us how relieved they were that the TTP had been thrown out. The army had started a process of “de-radicalisation” among the youth that had former militants come in for classes at centres where mullahs preached the path of moderation.

Major General JI Ramday, GOC-in-C of the army division guarding the region, told me, “We have turned the corner. The militants are fighting for survival in the region. There is no chance for them to come back. The people will not let them.” But the distressing attack on Malala is a wake-up call that neither the Pakistan Army nor the world can ignore. Militancy in the region, particularly the TTP, is a long way from being vanquished.

Swat is the gateway to Islamabad for the troubled regions of Pakistan, including the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and North and South Waziristan. The Pakistan Army continues to play a dangerous game of nurturing some militant groups in the region to support the Afghan Taliban in a bid to extend its strategic reach into Afghanistan with the US-troop withdrawal nigh. But there is every danger that Pakistan can be overwhelmed by the very militancy it supports for short-term gains. The sooner Pakistan realises it the better for it and for the world.





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